The morning after my return to Aces, I went to work a little later than I normally would have. Gideon was in his office when I entered, and he chuckled as I limped in.
“Late night?” he teased as I sat down beside him.
I rolled my eyes and sighed. “It was not what you think.” In all honesty, my dancing last night, being back on the stage in front of semi-familiar customers, was cathartic. And all I had been thinking about was that man. The one I met in Gulf Port. Oh…what was his name? I realized I hadn’t gotten his name, and that wasn’t like me at all. It seemed weird to me that both the man I met and the man in my dreams were on my mind. The one I met was attractive in a rugged sort of way. There was an animalistic quality to him I found alluring, to be certain. But the man from my dream was perfection, and he was a figment of my imagination.
“Val… Val!” I woke to the sound of Gideon’s voice, and it startled me. “Where’d you go?”
I looked at him oddly. “Oh, I was at Aces last night.”
Gideon’s mouth fell open. “The entire night?” I nodded. “Val, I didn’t mean for you to immerse yourself back there.” He took a breath to calm himself as I saw the veins popping out of his neck and sighed. “I meant just now. You fell asleep.”
“Oh.” I blushed deeply, and I did not know why. I felt that familiar rush of heat spread through my body. It was something I had only felt once since Ceci died…since Gideon and I split.
Gideon poked my cheek and laughed. “Oh good lord, Val, you’re blushing! Did you see Valen?”
“What? No.” Suddenly being reminded about my fiance made the thoughts I had been having of the man from the beach seem wrong, somehow. “I met someone in Gulf Port while I was hiding out.” Gideon raised an inquiring eyebrow, and I relented. “I never got his name. He just laid down beside me on the beach while I tanned. He never even said a word.” Other than the images that flashed through my mind during the day and then the dreams I had that night. He had a fine ass, muscles for days, and could probably put me through my paces if I was still having sex, which I wasn’t.
“Mhmm… I know that look, Val. I used to see it every morning. You like him!” The teasing was back, and I rolled my eyes at him.
“And you sound like a schoolgirl. Now, do we not have this presentation to do this afternoon?”
Gideon blanched, and I laughed. “Shit, I forgot about it! With that extra job we did…” He looked around. “Never mind, and there is something I want to talk to you about.”
“Oh?” He got up and went to his office door, then closed it. Ocean Guardians was not a large company, but we were growing.
“Val, you know I love you.” I nodded, both as a friend and an ex. “That is why I have it in my will that Ocean Guardians pass to you.”
My mouth fell open. “Are you planning on dying sometime soon, Gideon?” He shook his head. “Do not scare me like that.” I punched him playfully, but still. The thought of losing him was unbearable. “Gideon, you are the last person on this rotting earth that knows me, the real me. Selfish as this may sound, I cannot lose you. I would lose my last remaining tie to…well, everything.”
Gideon pulled me into a hug, and I buried my face in his chest. “It’s okay, Val. I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon, but I just wanted you to know. If anything happens to me, you become CEO of this company I built, all its international offices, everything. You have put more time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears into Ocean Guardians than anyone else, including me. I should pass it on to you now.”
“Do not even think about it!” I hit him again playfully and backed out of the hug. “But, knowing that you trust me with this is inspiring. Thank you.” Gideon placed a soft kiss on my forehead and smiled. “Alright, let us go kick this presentation in the ass!”
Gideon groaned at me, and I laughed. “It just doesn’t have the same ring, Val, if you don’t use contractions.” I rolled my eyes at the familiar banter and opened his office door.
“And that is why we believe stronger marketing against shark fin soup and the black market dealers needs to be stronger in Asia, particularly China and Japan. These creatures are innocent bycatch in the legal fishing nets, but instead of disposing of the carcasses with respect to the animal or using as much as they can, they chop the fins off and then toss the shark back to sea. Or…” I paused to gather myself. It would not be a good thing to blow my top in front of the Japanese delegation. “Even worse, they are intentionally fished for, brought on deck, mutilated, and then thrown back into the sea while still alive. This is cruelty. It is wrong, and it is illegal in most countries.” Gideon placed a hand over mine, and I calmed slightly. “Ocean Guardian strongly believes that if we can put a halt or even a damper on the illegal sale of shark fins in its most popular countries, then the rest of the world will follow suit. We would like for you to pledge that your companies will not partake in these purchases, nor will they promote the sale of shark fins or shark fin soup.”
The uproar was something I had foreseen coming, so the screen behind me flashed images of mutilated sharks for their pleasure. I watched as every single man blanched and then looked away. “Imagine that it was a dolphin or a beautiful whale. Or a child.” My words went soft, but everyone heard me. “The outcry would be insane. These animals deserve all the same rights and protections. Even more, because of how vehemently humanity hunts them. I dive with sharks frequently, and I have never seen a more majestic, more beautiful, more frightening creature in my life. Fear them, sure. Respect them, absolutely. Hunt them for sport? Never. This must end. Please, help us end it.” I held out a large sheet of paper and a pen to them and smiled as the first one bowed and accepted the pen.
“On behalf of the Naoki restaurant chain, I swear we will no longer buy shark fins.” He signed his name, and I bowed in response.
“Arigato gozaimasu,” I replied with a similar bow. Once he finished, most of the others fell in line. I had been counting on Naoki. It was a growing chain of Japanese restaurants here in the U.S., and their popularity was booming. Their image would be everything. I could not see them acting in illegal activities, or they would lose their foothold here. Once they were on board, the others would follow suit, if only because someone else had set the precedence.
An hour later, after the dignitaries had left for their hotels, Gideon and I were up on the roof with a couple of bottles of champagne. “Eight out of ten signed!” he cried out in excitement. “That was more than I thought we would get.”
I simply nodded in reply. “The other two have deep pockets and likely immediate connections to the trade. We tried putting them off balance by bringing them here, but I think the next step will be to go to Japan, meet them on their turf.” My voice had dropped towards the end, and Gideon stared over at me.
“No, not yet. We can take this win, and you can stay here and continue your hunt for Estran. Japan can wait for a little while. Maybe we can time it with next year’s sakura blossoming festivals. Everyone seems to breathe a little easier and have less of a stick up their asses during the bloom.” I nodded and drank from the bottle. I would not let this go, but I let Gideon have his win. He turned to me suddenly, his voice low, and I was reminded of how dominant he could be when he wanted something. “So, tell me about this secret man?”
I spat the champagne out of my nose and began coughing. “Why? It is not like I will ever see him again.”
His side-eye made me nervous. “But you want to.”
“That is completely beside the point, Gideon.” I sputtered out. I felt the blush rising to my face again. “Listen,” I knew Gideon would not let this go, “there is not much to tell. He was on the beach when I exited the water. He did not see me, but he appeared when I laid down in the sun to tan and just laid beside me. There were no words exchanged.” My voice was breathless. “He made me feel again, like with you and Valen.”
“You can’t possibly love him, though.” Gideon’s voice was almost as soft as mine, and I knew he was serious.
“No, gods no. I do not think I ever could love again. You, Ceci, Valen. Do you not think my life has been full enough, Gideon?” He nodded slowly. “Wanting anything more than that would be far too selfish of me. And anyway, there is no way he could ever return those feelings, even if we did run into each other again.” I waved my hand dismissively. “Please, just drop this. I do not wish to dwell on what cannot be Gideon. I only want to focus on what I can do right now.”
Gideon nodded and sighed. I knew he wanted me to be happy, and right now, I was putting on a brave face. Valen would never return for me. I knew this engagement was a farce, even though my heart soared every time I thought of him and our future together. Yet, he gave me the freedom to pursue other options if they arose. So what would I do if the mystery man ended up in New Orleans? I thought about it for a moment as Gideon talked about the plans he had for Ocean Guardians, and after a while, as we watched the sun dip down below the horizon, I concluded that even if he came this way, I would not see him again. I could not get wrapped up in something I could not have, something I wanted more than I realized before Valen.
I looked over at Gideon and smiled softly, not letting my inner dialogue affect my attention to his ramblings. I took another large swig of champagne and then laid back on the roof and watched the stars come out. I wanted a connection. I wanted to be normal again. I wanted, more than anything, to not be broken. And I could drag no one else into this void. I wanted so badly to keep Gideon from it, but he was as mired in my pain as I was. I would find some way to free him. I just needed to figure out how.
It was not until the night was dark that I woke up from falling asleep on the roof, with the man’s face in my mind and Gideon sleeping on the chair beside me, that I decided against my previous insistence. I wanted to see him again. I desired him more than I should, and I worried he might break down the walls I had put up so long ago if he somehow strolled back into my life. Of course, that was if he wanted me back, which I found outrageous. I smiled and closed my eyes in that knowledge. That even if we met once more, my attraction to him was one-sided, and that I had no reason to fear these walls coming down.